Can democracy cope with crises like this?

John Lloyd is a commentator unafraid to hit the counter-intuitive button. He does more in this FT article than bemoan the gap between people and politicians, aggravated in the UK by the MPs’ expenses scandal and in the Republic by the gombeen culture. That democracy is in trouble – in some versions terminal trouble – is now the commonest of ideas among political scientists, coupled with a regret that their warnings have not been attended to. In one of the first scholarly articles to tackle the expenses scandal, for the next issue of Political Quarterly, the political scientist Alexandra Kelso says that “the House of Commons and its MPs have unequivocally failed to tell the public about who they are, what they do and how they do it, in spite of much good advice from many quarters”.

The criticism from scholars is that politicians do not give the public the governance they want. Somewhat contradictorily, they also charge that politicians do not provide what the public needs – even when people do not want what is needed. Experts increasingly believe that even the best of politicians cannot match the world’s challenges, because interest groups and popular attachment to high consumption will defeat them.So climate change policies are woefully inadequate and there are few ideas around to capture the public imagination. Lloyd’s argument peters out rather in an anti-climax. He seems to be saying there’s an innate wisdom in public opinion, a concept that sounds suspiciously like Rousseau’s “general will”, but he advises politicians to “listen to, learn from and level with these citizens if you want to stay in power – and for parliamentary government to continue.” Well and good but how does this apply to new banking regulations for instance? The public are supposed to be up in arms about the revival of the bonus culture, particularly when they’re supposed to be controlling the banks. How does this translate into action? Too tight regulation with bigger capital deposits ,say, simply postpones the day when banks can increase lending. Perhaps we can grasp the banking problem easier if we ask a question with an ethical content: what do bankers deserve to be paid? Robert Peston helps us steer through those thickets. The answer seems to be: not as much as they think. Their performance levels out at about average between good times and bad. So many public decisions require expertise to understand and to anticipate unintended consequences. Yet this shouldn’t be an argument for losing faith in democracy. There is no excuse in c21 for silly rows over the basic facts of public spending. Government of whatever party should be compelled to disclose the figures. We’re getting near that point with the independent release of govenment statistics but we’re not there yet. Much wider disclosure of information coupled with far wider accountability from politicians and bankers alike, would allow the public to sniff out authentic answers and would I believe stimulate a revival of trust and involvement in politics.